Pavel Kříž and Jonas Chernik in The Prague Orgy. via Bioscope

New Czech movie The Prague Orgy shows Philip Roth’s vision of 1970s Czechoslovakia

The ‘gorgeous bleakness’ of Prague in the 1970s is captured in a new film based on a classic novella

Philip Roth in real life tried to promote Czechoslovak literature, and visited Prague several times in the communist era to meet with dissident writers to bring back unpublished manuscripts. He would also return with some money for them, until he was caught and then banned from re-entry.

Those exploits were the basis for his 1985 novella The Prague Orgy, which takes place in the fall in 1976. The novella has now been adapted into an English-language Czech film. (Some copies are dubbed into Czech, so be sure to see the original.)



Canadian actor Jonas Chernik plays Roth’s literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, along with veteran Czech actor Pavel Kříž as his blacklisted guide, and Russian actress Kseniya Rappoport as Olga, a woman in possession of some unpublished stories by a Jewish writer who died during World War II.

The film comes out just in time for the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, and can show people a vision of life where every step is under government observation. Plans to make the film began in 2012, when director Irena Pavlásková read the novel and became interested in acquiring the rights. She sent her previous films to Roth and subsequently met with Roth in Connecticut to discuss the film.

Roth, who passed way in 2018, liked the concepts and granted permission. It is the first time a Czech-based director has acquired such a prestigious foreign novel. The script was rewritten several times before filming took place in fall 2018.

This is the director’s seventh film. Her 1989 film Time of the Servants (Čas sluhů) won the Caméra d’Or Special Mention at the 1990 Cannes International Film Festival. Her films have also won awards at Montreal and Moscow.

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Jonas Chernik in The Prague Orgy. via Bioscope

Co-producer Michal Kráčmer said the concept behind the film version was to show an outsider’s vision of Prague in the dark days of normalization, after the Soviet-led invasion and before the Velvet Revolution.

Lead actor Chernik, who is also a writer in real life, was approached in June 2018, while he was acting in a film in Canada. “I remember reading it in my trailer and thinking I just have to do this,” he said.

“As an actor you are always looking for a way in, a way to identify with the character, so the fact that [Zuckerman] was a Jewish writer from North America, coming from a life of comfort and relative wealth and some celebrity, coming into an environment he really knows nothing about in a practical way, that was me,” he said.

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Jonas Chernik and Kseniya Rappoport in The Prague Orgy. via Bioscope

While Prague is often the depicted in films as being some sort of center of international intrigue — from 1996’s Mission Impossible to the 2018’s The Spy who Dumped Me — it is often a fantasy version of Prague, a touristy travelogue with a lot of gunfire and explosions thrown in.

Instead of chasing nuclear secrets, Zuckerman is after literature, which to the Czechoslovak secret police is something just as dangerous. There are no shooting or explosions, but the growing sense of fear is just as palpable. Every restaurant table is bugged, police follow Zuckerman everywhere, and people who meet him are interrogated.

Chernik didn’t want to prepare too much for the role. “It was important to me to know only what I thought Zuckerman would know. So I didn’t want to overeducate myself. I didn’t want to overresearch because part of the heart of the story is Zuckerman’s discovery about what is really happening here and what it really means to be here,” he said.

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The Prague Orgy
Jonas Chernik and Kseniya Rappoport at the orgy of the title. via Bioscope

“I think when he arrives, he is naive and he doesn’t understand the weight of the regime and the impact that it has on everyday life. So in each scene as he witnesses it or becomes informed about it he becomes more and more aware,” he added.

“I wanted to mirror that experience. We shot the film chronologically, which is very rare. This is a great gift for an actor. As Zuckerman learns about the country and the politics, he starts building an awareness,” he said.

He learned a lot from the cast and crew. “I had fascinating conversations with [director] Irena [Pavlásková] and Ewan [McLaren] who is also in the film, who arrived here in the ’80s, right at the cusp of the Revolution. So that’s when I really started to learn about it. Talking to people, asking questions about it,” he said. McLaren played a moderator at a press conference in a flashback scene.

The Prague Orgy
Pavel Kříž, Jonas Chernik and Kseniya Rappoport in The Prague Orgy. via Bioscope

Chernik was a longtime fan of novelist Roth. “I grew up reading his books. Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint were two of the first books I ever read. … I read most of his books, but I never read The Prague Orgy. When I got the script, I thought this is great, an amazing story,” he said.

“And I knew the history, theoretically. I didn’t understand the history until I started to research, and then mostly when I got here and started talking to people and I quickly realized that everything in this country, for the people that lived through the Revolution, they contextualize everything either as pre-Revolution or post-Revolution,” he added.

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A highlight shows Zuckerman meeting with a writer called Václav, a dead ringer for a young Václav Havel, at the pub U Fleků. The scene is not in the novel, but was added for dramatic effect, according to co-producer Kráčmer. Viktor Dvořák plays the character inspired by Havel.

The Prague Orgy
Pavel Kříž, Jonas Chernik and “Václav” at U Fleků in The Prague Orgy. via Bioscope

The orgies referred to in the title were real events, and as the film states they were organized by the son of a famous Art Nouveau painter who managed to stay above the law somehow. The names were changed for the film.

Real locations were used, but finding the city as it was over 40 years ago was a little difficult. Cinematography had to be a bit restricted to exclude modern elements. The Prague Convention Center, with its classic 1970s décor stood in for the airport. Unrenovated parts of main train station Hlavní nádraží, the nearby Esplanade Hotel, the Peklo restaurant in a medieval basement, and old streets in Malá Strana were used to re-create the era. The effect is quite claustrophobic, which suits the story.

The Prague Film fund helped to support the film, as the locations were used to represent Prague and not as a stand in for another city. The fund also helped with getting permission to film in iconic locations such as Charles Bridge and Žofín Palace.

The Prague Orgy
Jonas Chernik with Ewan McLaren, right, with Žofín Palace standing in for New York. via Bioscope

“It’s a very specific Prague that is in the movie. I thought one of the great accomplishments is capturing that late ’70s era Prague — from the costumes to the production design, to the color schemes. The way that Sasha [Alexander Šurkala] shot the movie — it is gorgeous in its kind of bleakness,” Chernik said.

“I see the Prague in the movie, it is the Prague I imagine from the ’70s. It is still out here, but now it is much more colorful and free,” he added.

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